A Brief History of Leeds #3: The 17th-century

The third in a series of articles exploring the history of Leeds, using books and other stock resources held in the Leeds Libraries collections. For all the entries in this series, see our dedicated page.

In our previous entry in this series, we briefly touched on the emergence of Leeds as a textile market centre during the late 16th and early 17th-century. That expansion of the textile industry greatly enriched the ‘gentleman merchants’ who would dominate the town’s affairs from the 17th-century until the early 19th-century.

The merchants’ wealth allowed some members of that elite to devote their time to the sorts of ‘gentlemanly’ pursuits that situated them socially and culturally closer to the “neighbouring gentry than the clothiers with whom they lived cheek by jowl in the crowded little town of the Restoration” – as R.G. Wilson wrote in his classic 1971 book on the Gentleman Merchants.

This included families such as the Thoresbys, of whom Ralph in particular turned much of the family wealth away from business and towards literary pursuits, dedicating his life to antiquarian collecting and writing.  

In this, Thoresby wasn’t alone – indeed he was part of a wide, national network of antiquarians, as his letters and diary attest. Some members of that network were very well-known indeed, such as Sir Hans Sloane, who gifted Thoresby a slim book on ancient coins, now in the Central Library collections – you can see the title page of that book below.

The note made by Sloane on that title page speaks to the intimate nature of his relationship with Thoresby, providing an interesting way of approaching and contextualising Leeds’ wider place at this time: it offers tangible evidence of Leeds, this relatively small, provincial town, known primarily for its importance as a market centre, as being connected through pioneers such as Thoresby to wider national and international networks of learning; an alternative republic of letters, as it has been called. More importantly, perhaps, given the source and nature of Sloane’s wealth and collections, the book also connects Leeds to networks of imperial cultural power and extractive colonial economics.

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